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Case Files: Babbs Christmas Fire

Updated: Mar 4, 2023


Copy of a 1949 newspaper clipping of Judy Braun with her mother Lillie's doll that survived the Babbs Switch schoolhouse in 1924 on the 25th anniversary

The fire during a Christmas program is considered among the most devastating fires in Oklahoma’s history.

In all, 36 died, almost half of them children, after a burning candle on a Christmas tree turned a tiny, crowded schoolhouse into an inferno. It is the 6th deadliest school fires on record in the US. The occurrence during the Christmas season magnified the sense of tragedy. About 200 community members arrived at the one-story schoolhouse that evening for a Christmas Eve program despite heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures. Engaged couples, grandparents, mothers, fathers and children packed into the tiny structure, whose windows were covered with metal wiring to keep out prowlers drawn by the nearby railroad tracks. After the program concluded, a teenage boy dressed in a Santa suit who was handing toys and candy to the children bumped a cedar Christmas tree. Back then, there were no "fake lights" on the tree, and most were lite with candles all over the tree, which was usually a cut live tree. A lit candle ignited paper decorations, tinsel and dry needles. Mrs. W. G. Boland, mother of three children burned to death at the Babb's Switch school house, gave her version of the tragedy at a hospital the following night. "I was on the committee," she said, "and was under the tree helping to give out the presents when a candle set the tree on fire. I tried to beat it out with a paper sack but did no good. At first the crowd laughed and joked about the blaze, They said "Look out Santa Claus, you'll catch on fire." They laughed and joked. My boy Dow was acting as Santa Claus. The program was over, all the presents had been distributed and Dow had handed out about 14 of 100 bags of candy and fruit to which the crowd was being treated when the fire started. Dow tried to smother it out with a blanket and then grabbed the curtain from the stage and tried to use it. The sheeting caught fire and Dow, who was dressed up in a Santa Claus and suit covered over with cotton, was immediately enveloped by a sheet of flame. Panic spread. In an instant, the tree and the ceiling above it, stage curtains and then, the entire structure, caught fire. No one laughed then.

Lillie Biggers crawled out from under a desk and followed her mother. Like some other children escaping the fire, she grabbed her new toy on the way out — a doll. Another child, a boy, somehow made his way back into the building for his toy and never came back out, according to accounts from the time. Biggers and her daughters, Lillie and Bessie, 12, survived the Christmas Eve fire in 1924 in the tiny, rural Oklahoma hamlet of Babbs Switch, but the family’s boys, William, 9, and Walter, 15, did not. The fire burned Margaret Biggers’ hands and arms so badly her then 4-year-old daughter, Lillie, never shook the image of doctors tending to her mother. Decades later, Lillie Biggers remembered her mother riding in the back seat of a Model T Ford with her damaged hand and arm out the window trying to alleviate the excruciating pain with cold air, according to one of Lillie Bigger’s children. “It had been traumatic for a little girl to see her mother in so much pain,” said Bill Braun, Lillie Biggers Braun’s 65-year-old son. The panicked crowd crushed toward the only exit, the schoolhouse door, which only opened inward. Women, men and children screamed as they struggled to wedge themselves through the partly open door. Escape through the windows was blocked because they were covered with secure metal screens to prevent vandals from breaking into the school. One boy was able to escape through a window because someone succeeded in prying open a corner of one of the screens. A few who escaped tried to return to save loved ones or pull a few lucky victims through the door until flames and the surging mob inside made it impossible. A few tried and failed to pry the wire off the windows. One witness said "Heavy black smoke was pouring from the building and I had to send down as I worked in order to get my breath. When some men I helped try to pull a boy from the bottom of the pile, he was already half way out of the door but all out strength was not enough to free him. The flames were pouring out over us then and we had to leave him. There he burned halfway on the outside. During the whole time I was at the door I saw only one foot sticking from the pile of people. It was mostly hands and heads." Another witness said: "Her face pressed against the meshed window Vesta Jackson looked out on her brother Andrew Jackson, and pleaded in a din that he could not bear to break through the barrier that separated her from the cooling snow haven outside. Others pushed against Vesta and beat on window panes that broke. But the mesh--it clung to Vesta's cell window. Her brother, who was one of those first to escape the room tore at the wire. Fingers bleeding he smashed his large fist time after time into the wire. With each rebound of the fist the hope crept from the soul of the girl. Vesta died in the arms of her sweetheart, Aubrey Coffee. When rescuers stepped gingerly into the charred ruins they found Vesta and Aubrey and the other members of the Coffey family together. The milling mob at the door crawled, got on each other's shoulders to fight through the narrow exit. On the outside those escaping from the inferno fought to get back to sons, daughters and wives. Two elements clashed. Those in the rear in the school house mob was pushed into the crackling furnace. Burned body stench sickened the night air. Several men with Jackson literally jerked men, women and children from the flames that nipped at clothing and burned time scars into the flesh. Two gasoline lamps hanging on the sidewalls of the clapboard school building exploded when the flames rose roofward and aided in the conflagration, according to several who escaped from the school house."

The dead and injured were transported by car to Hobart, the nearest sizable town, and a makeshift morgue was set up in a downtown building. The next day, 32 people were reported dead, and 37 injured were reported in Hobart hospitals. Four died of their injuries, bringing the number of dead to 36. Just 15 of 33 schoolchildren survived the blaze.

Newspapers around the country carried stories about the fire. Some accounts at the time noted an appreciation for the “Hobart Spirit,” a precursor, some might say, to what became known as the Oklahoma Standard in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. “I have seldom, if ever, seen a community respond as has Hobart,” wrote Walter T. Brown in a Dec. 30, 1924, Associated Press story published in The Hobart Democrat-Chief. Switchboard and telegraph operators stayed at their posts for days; the mayor, the judge, the surgeons, ministers, mothers, daughters “dropped everything to assuage a community’s wound. ... I cannot name all,” he wrote. Newspaper columnists and politicians quickly framed the tragedy as a warning of what might happen when safety precautions are ignored in public buildings. In the wake of the fire, Oklahoma’s legislature passed laws and pushed safety campaigns to prevent a similar tragedy, according to The Oklahoman archives. Officials evaluated schools throughout the state for fire hazards. Oklahoma schools replaced inward-opening doors with doors that opened outward. Schools added exits and screens that could be opened from the outside, purchased fire extinguishers for every room and banned open flames. Fire escapes were added to multilevel school buildings. The movement stretched beyond schools and beyond Oklahoma as public policy nationwide shifted toward eliminating fire hazards in all public buildings. Still, the changes took time and that cost more lives. Between 1908 and 1958, school fires in just eight states, including Oklahoma’s Babbs Switch fire, would kill at least 755 people, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Following the Chicago fire, states enacted better fire safety codes for schools and more strictly enforced existing codes, said Robert Solomon, division manager for building and life safety code for the National Fire Protection Association. Until then, school fire tragedies, often in small communities or rural areas, had failed to spark any wide-spread reforms. Solomon believes the location of the Chicago fire in a large media market, combined with horrifying images of children at the windows, gelled a nationwide movement to make school buildings safer. Newspapers from all around the country printed the story, and people sent more than $12,000 to help cover medical and burial costs.

------- The bodies of the two little boys from the Biggers family who died on Christmas Eve were identified by the objects they had carried. William, 9, held a toy gun. Walter, 15, wore a belt buckle. The children were among the victims buried side-by-side in coffins in a long mass grave in Hobart Rose Cemetery. The Babbs Switch school was replaced in August 1925. When the district was annexed into Hobart and Roosevelt in 1943, Babbs Switch closed for good. Today, a stone monument marks the spot where the burned schoolhouse once stood. It’s four miles south of Hobart on U.S. 183, a quiet spot near a picnic table. From there, the memorial, like the tragedy, is in the distance, yet never too far away. ---------- THE MISSING CHILD You're probably wondering at this point why I including this story in a true crime podcast when this, in fact, was deemed a horrendous accident... well... LET ME TELL YOU... One child, three-year-old Mary Edens, was reported as missing, but her body was not found. Her aunt Alice Noah, who escaped from the building but died several days later, said that she recalled carrying Mary out of the building and handing her to someone she did not know. Because three-year-old Mary Edens's body was not recovered, her parents hoped that she had somehow survived the fire. In 1957, Grace Reynolds of Barstow, California came forward, claiming to be the long-lost child. Reynolds and the Edens family were reunited on the air during an episode of the Art Linkletter's House Party television program. Reynolds later wrote a book about her experiences entitled Mary, Child of Tragedy: The Story of the Lost Child of the 1924 Babbs Switch Fire. A local newspaper editor knew the story to be fraudulent, but withheld the information until 1999 at the request of Mary Edens's father, who believed his wife could not endure losing her child a second time. Every year around Christmas, one or another of the Oklahoma newspapers would publish an account of the Babbs Switch fire. The stories usually included an account of the missing Mary Edens. In the fall of 1956, a Babbs Switch story caught the eye of Elmont H. Place, a district governor of the Lions Club in San Bernardino, Calif. Grace Reynolds, a friend of his, had confided that she never had felt at home with her family and often wondered if she had another past. He wondered if the Edens could be her parents. Place wrote to a fellow Lion, Wayne Fite, asking for information about the Edens family. Fite contacted Betty Reynolds (the married names of Betty and Grace were a coincidence apparently) who was born to the Edens after Mary disappeared. Fite wrote back, and his letter illustrates the hope and heartache of the Edens' search. "Mrs. Reynolds asked me not to contact her parents, because they have only recently closed a similar case where another girl matched the description perfectly and their hopes were built up that the long search had ended, only to find by blood test that they were wrong again. Mr. and Mrs. Edens have carried on a constant search since the night of the tragedy. They have had detectives working on this case off and on since that date. They have turned up many finds that they thought were the real thing until some small detail dissolved the whole case." Mary's sisters sent photographs. By Feb. 2, they and Grace Reynolds had submitted blood for testing, which couldn't prove by which relations (in the 50's) but could prove they weren't related. The clincher was a small scar on the arch of Grace's foot; Mary had the same scar. The reunion was set and occurred Feb. 9, 1957. The Edens were convinced and overjoyed. "We've been through this several times before when we thought we had found our girl," Ethel Edens told the Hobart Democrat-Chief for its Feb. 10, 1957, edition. "We were afraid we'd be hurt some more. But this time, it's the real thing. " she said. The story of the reunion made newspapers from California to North Dakota to Michigan. On March 27, 1957, the newly found Mary Edens and her parents appeared on Art Linkletter's television show, "House Party." But while Grace Reynolds, using her newfound name and fame, was making the celebrity circuit in Hobart, someone in California who knew something of Grace's past was placing a telephone call to the local paper. The first hint that Grace Reynolds might not be the Edens' daughter came in a telegram sent to Democrat-Chief Editor Al Adams on Feb. 19, 1957. The telegram was sent by Mel Bennet of the Stockton Record, the newspaper in Stockton, Calif. It read and I really want to use STOP at each period: "CONFIDENTIAL. HAVE INFORMATION. GRACE REYNOLDS REPRESENTING SELF AS DAUGHTER OF MR AND MRS L F EDENS. YOUR CITY. MAY BE IMPOSTER. BELIEVE HER TO BE DAUGHTER OF MRS GOLDIE THOMAS AND FORMER HUSBAND TOM GAITHER. PLS GIVE ADDITIONAL DETAILS. MEANS OF IDENTIFICATION. FINANCIAL CIRCUMSTANCES OF EDENS. WE WILL EXCHANGE OUR INFORMATION FOR ANYTHING MORE YOU CAN PROVIDE ON THIS CASE." The Stockton newspaper took up the story after Dorothy Link called. She had seen an Associated Press photograph of Grace Reynolds with the Edens. Link knew Grace Reynolds. In fact, she claimed to be Grace's sister. Within weeks, the Stockton Record had obtain from Goldie Thomas a notarized statement, dated May 16, 1957, which made a startling claim: "I hereby certify that Grace Leona Reynolds (nee Gaither) is my lawful daughter. She was born July 11, 1923 on a farm near Cotton Plant (Woodruff County), Arkansas." (this would make her one at the time of the fire, not 3.) In a memorandum to Ransom Hancock, owner of the Democrat-Chief, reporter Eugene J. Kuhn summarized his investigation: Grace Reynolds was born in the farm home of an aunt in Arkansas. Grace's mother was attended at birth by Mary Manual, "a midwife, who then was about 45 years old. The date and place of birth are certified by notarized statement." Kuhn listed three younger sisters. Grace's younger sister, Dorothy, had been married to and divorced from Alfred R. Reynolds. Six years after that divorce, Grace married her sister's ex-husband, Kuhn reported, and Kuhn suggested that anger at Grace may have prompted Link to call to the newspaper. Link also said that Grace's claim made her mother appear to be a kidnapper. Link showed Kuhn a letter from her sister Inez Collins, which said in part: "What do you think of sister Grace now? New name, new family, money. She should be pretty well happy, don't you think? That's the most absurd thing I have ever heard of. I'd like to punch her in the nose." About 10 years before this reunion, Link said, Grace had begun to tell people she had no family. When confronted about this, Grace replied that she would be less likely to land a job in a first-rate department store if people knew she came from a "poor people's family." Kuhn confronted Grace Reynolds with his information and sent this telegram to The Democrat-Chief: "GRACE REYNOLDS. REACH HER. BARSTOW CALIF DRESS SHOP ADVISED OF NOTARIZED STATEMENT. SAID PLANS CONSULT ATTORNEY BEFORE MAKING STATEMENT. 'I CAN'T MAKE ANY SORT OF STATEMENT AT THE PRESENT TIME," SHE SAID. ASKED WHETHER SHE PERSISTS IN CLAIM SHES EDENS DAUGHTER, REPLIED I'M NOT CLAIMING NOTHING YET." HOLD STORY UNTIL WEDNESDAY. MAY HEAR FROM HER TOMORROW." Between the work of both newspapers, they were close to publishing a story that would rock the town of Hobart, where the return of the long-lost Mary Edens had brought a measure of healing. In a letter to Ransom Hancock, reporter Kuhn concluded: "This letter also will serve to confirm our agreement to break the story simultaneously on Wednesday, May 22, 1957." But the Democrat-Chief never published its story. Now that he had what he thought was irrefutable proof that Grace Reynolds was an imposter, Ransom Hancock was honor-bound to show his evidence to Louis Edens (The dad). Joe Hancock, who took over the newspaper from his father, remembers the day. "Dad... went to Louis with this information before Mrs. Reynolds came back in June," Joe says. "Dad took all this information, met with Louis at his house, maybe in the yard. Dad was really shook up having to tell him, and Louis went through the trauma of finding out." Then Louis Edens asked his friend for a consideration, a favor that has kept the story about Grace Reynolds out of the newspaper. Louis Edens said to Ransom Hancock: "Look, my wife believes this girl, she believes she's found her daughter." Louis Edens asked Ransom to withhold the story until his wife's death. "Dad said, 'I just can't run that.' And he didn't," Joe says. "We had the information in the safe at the office in an envelope. Dad took it many years later to Delbert Braun. Delbert was the historian of the Babbs fire. Dad told Delbert, 'Here it is, and I hope you'll honor Louis' request that it be kept secret.'" Instead of publishing a story with the Stockton Record, the Democrat-Chief published it simultaneously with The Oklahoman decades later. Last week, Joe Hancock shared the long-secret letters and telegrams even as he decided to close this chapter in his newspaper. "We decided that now is the time to tell it," Joe says. "Some of the people here through the years have questioned Grace's story and are suspicious of it. Every time there's been an anniversary, like the 50th, it comes up." Joe Hancock concluded his revelation in Thursday's Democrat-Chief with these words: "Now, 75 years after the fire, with only two known survivors, it's time to set the record right. Mary Elizabeth Edens was not taken from the fire site that night but was in all probability burned with 35 other good Kiowa County folks." He is proud of his father's decision, which, Joe says, reflects a humanity that's been lost in modern journalism. "I hope we don't get away from having some feeling for the survivors," he says. "What good would have come from publishing the story? Mr. Edens knew she was a hoax. Mrs. Edens believed the story and accepted her for her daughter. I'm sure that gave her a peace that she never would have gotten." For nearly half a century, the owners of the town's newspaper have known the truth about Louis Edens' missing daughter and never reported it. Mary's parents are dead, and her two surviving sisters know the truth, Joe says, so the truth won't hurt anyone. "I think it was a tough decision," Joe says of the choice his father, Ransom Hancock, made. "I know good and well he was right, and I don't know if I would have had the wisdom to do that or not. I don't see any reason to have hurt that family. I can't imagine the trauma of losing a child in a fire and not knowing what happened to her. Can you imagine how you'd feel years later, never having found a body?" Grace Reynolds, who now goes by the name Mary Edens Grossnickle, politely rejects Joe Hancock's conclusion. Forty-two years after she first arrived in Hobart, she still claims she is the Edens' lost daughter.

After years of running restaurants in Idaho and Yellowstone Park, Grossnickle has settled in Colorado, where I reached her by telephone at her home. The doubters don't bother her. "I really don't care what they think," she says. "It just bounces off of me. There was too many things that proved out before." Of her younger sister Betty, Mary says Betty was jealous of the attention lavished on her when she returned to Hobart. "My younger sister, she just fully and totally and completely accepted me too, until the new wore off," she said. Her childhood was rough, she said, and from the time she was 5 or 6 years old, she was farmed out to any family that needed a hand around the house. Of the notarized statement by Goldie More, Mary, who is 78, wasn't surprised she signed it. "She was scared," Mary said. "If she wasn't my birth mother, then she was a kidnapper." Etta Henderson, who lives in Oklahoma City, is one of the Edens' daughters. Like everyone else, she was excited about "Mary's" return and believed they had found their sister. But after their father learned the truth from Ransom Hancock, the doubts began. Her parents traveled to California and visited Grace's birth mother and two sisters. Grace and her son lived with the Edens for a while, and then with Etta and her family. Mary's son Lee still contacts Etta occasionally, and still calls her "aunt." Which is fine with Etta; she likes Lee. She has no illusions, however, about Grace. "My daddy figured it out real quick, but we did not want to hurt our mother," says Etta, 76. "I am not saying she is an imposter. I wouldn't. But I am saying she is not my sister." The lady claiming to be Mary would write a book in 1980 called Mary, Child of Tragedy: The Story of the Lost Child of the 1924 Babbs Switch Fire. She would die in Colorado at the age of 86. So, what really happened to little Mary Edens? When her aunt handed her to "someone she didn't know" was that person a rescuer or someone who took advantage of the chaos and stole Mary running off into the night? Did Mary make it to the Hobart hosp with the rest of the victims only to pass away there, unnamed, or did someone take the child from there? Was she placed on the ground outside of the school so that the rescuer could help another? Did she then simply wonder off? She was the only body unaccounted for - meaning, her body was no longer at the scene of the fire - for one reason or another. So, Just what was the actual reason? I guess we may never know, making the case of Mary Edens a cold case and unsolved.


There are no survivors of the Babbs Switch fire left, locals say. Lillie Biggers Braun died in 2012 at 92. Joe Hebensperger, 11 at the time of the fire, was the last known survivor. He died last year at 99. THE DEAD The identified dead are: Mrs. Roda Bradshaw, age 37 Dow Bolding, 17 years Maggie Bolding, 13 years old Edward Bolding, 8 years old William Riggers, 9 years old T. C. Coffey, 65 years old Maudie Coffey, 16 years old Etha Coffey Aubrey Coffey, 26 years old Juanita Clements Stevenson, 26 years old Infant: Mary Juanita Stevenson Mary Lois Clements, 21 years old Gladys Clements, 22 years old W.T. Curtis, 47 years old Mrs. W. T. Curtis, 38 years old Frances Curtis, 8 years old Edna Curtis, 12 years old John Duke, 21 years old J. T. Goforth, 55 years old Vesta Jackson, 18 years old Cyril Peck, 17 years old Paul Peck, 19 years old Walter Riggers, 15 years old Mattie May Bryan, 10 years old Mrs. T. C. Coffey, 60 years old Orley Coffey, 4 years old Mary Elizabeth Eden, 3 years old John Hepenshperger, 9 years old Mrs. Glen Hill, 26 years old (school teacher) Obel Peck, 21 years old Ernest Peterson, 13 years old Julia Revill, 9 years old Lee Revill, 11 years old Lillie Revill INJURED E. H. Bryan Mrs. W. G. Bolding Claude Bolding Roy Bolding Effie Biggers Mrs. W. H. Biggers Charles Duke L. F. Eden John Goforth (injured probably fatal) Earl Griffith Clyde Harris A. D. Harris W. L. Haney Opal Hill Mabel Hill Willie Hill Ethel Hill Glen Hill Nellie Hutchinson Oscar Rokoma? H.G. Keenum Lola Keenum Mark Cezle Mildred Noah Mrs. A. C. Noah Ray Noah Gladys Peck Mrs. Gertrude Williamson Mrs. Joe McNutt _________________________________________________________________________ SOURCES FOR BABS CHRISTMAS FIRE:



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